Hannah Arendt and Theology

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John Kiess
Philosophy and Theology
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury T&T Clark
    , February
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Questions of power, agency, and social life emerge today in various forms, some more insidious than others. Whether posed by endless bureaucracies, by increased apathy toward the political process, or by the various forms of actual (or hypothetical) totalitarianisms globally, the question of power and its use is becoming a question that is increasingly vexing our world.

It is here that John Kiess's book on the theological ramifications of Hannah Arendt's work provides a promising guide to such intersecting problems of power, agency, evil, and the human desire for good. The book opens with a biographical chapter, introducing Arendt as a kind of Heideggerian Augustinian, one who saw that the insights of love and evil in Augustine were best meted out in the realm of Heidegger's history. Totalitarianism, Kiess contends, was for Arendt a new kind of evil which prior tradition left us unprepared to engage with fully. Whereas past forms of evil left some space for resistance, totalitarianism occupies the full ground of human existence, co-opting any and all space for human life.

Kiess contends that, in her analysis, Arendt opens up a new space for 21st-century Augustinians, namely, a new way of "worldliness." Chapters 3 to 5 are devoted to teasing out the full features of this Arendtian "worldliness," an Augustine-inflected mode of existence that emphasized the ways in which love cannot be fully subsumed or destroyed even by the worst of regimes. Love ultimately compels us to act, to "give birth" to a new way of living in one's own age, using freed thought rather than ideology, and love rather than reliance upon static forms of totalitarian concepts.

Kiess's work is eminently helpful in clarifying not only the biographical influences of Arendt, but in providing context for some of Arendt's more notable concepts, particularly those of "radical evil" and "natality." The difficulty with doing theology with Arendt, Kiess rightly notes, is that Arendt distanced herself from Augustine's work, opting for more philosophical approaches to the problem of how to be present in the world in an age of tyrants.

In acknowledging Arendt's own self-conscious distancing from her early theological sources (such as Augustine), two possible avenues for exploring her theology appear. One can gloss theologically on Arendt's work out of the strict resources of Arendt, with both its philosophical limits and promises, which has been done and has borne some fruit. But Kiess takes a second road: following Arendt's admonition that every generation must exercise "natality"—beginning again in its own age—Kiess brings Augustine more explicitly to bear on Arendt's framework. In the process, new insights emerge about the theological importance of institutional structures, tradition, love, refugees, and thinking alongside the world. The results are an innovative re-reading of Arendt which more deeply infuses her work on love, the need for roots in the world and the moral life with a framework that returns her early theological work to view.

The book, at one level, will commend itself more explicitly to those more amenable to Augustine's work, as Arendt (and Kiess's constructions) depend deeply on Augustinian conceptions of love, the soul, and the fractured nature of the world. But more broadly, the work provides stunning insights to those looking for a broadly religious take on the many problems of power faced by the modern world. Scholars of political theology, philosophical theology, and religious ethics will be well served by returning to Arendt, a thinker for our age, with John Kiess as their guide.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Myles Werntz is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at Logsdon Seminary, Hardin-Simmons University.

Date of Review: 
December 12, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Kiess is Assistant Professor of Theology at Loyola University Maryland, USA. He received his Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics from Duke University, USA.



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